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Cogitations from Venezuela, was the strike worth it?

By Daniel Duquenal

Sunday 21, December 2003 - One year ago, still in San Felipe I was wondering how I was going to make my way back to Caracas. Gas was scarce. I had managed to fill up my car and was not driving it, saving its gas for the one way trip, to weather the Paro with my relatives and friends. TV was bringing the daily list of disasters, abuses, marches and what not. Christmas certainly was not in the air. And all for what?

The victory of Chavez?

For the outside observer, that Chavez survived a crippling national strike that lasted for two months could be seen a victory. A normal president would have caved in way earlier or negotiated some settlement. De La Rua in Argentina had left for much, much less than what happened in December in Caracas.

Chavez's motives for fighting the opposition so bitterly are his to detail. His "final" fight, initiated on December 2001 has been dragging for two years, has left the country almost like a corpse and still does not bring him any closer to the stability he so wishes to gain. His own stability that is.

More than ever he is isolated behind a camarilla of sycophantic hanger-on that might or might do accompany him until the bitter end, be it loss of power or coup d'état. The very limited successes that he does have, cannot even been properly exploited as trust is lost in today's Venezuela. Whatever Miraflores palace says, it is taken like the Gospel by Chavez's followers and as plain lies by the other side. Some, like Teodoro Petkoff in Tal Cual, still try on occasion to "interpret" positive signs from Miraflores but even their patience is running thin. The recent "megafraude" campaign has done nothing to help toward some arrangement or at least a vague Christmas truce.

Yet, Chavez has all that he needs to control the country as he pleases. His election allowed him to change the constitution to custom made document. It allowed Chavez to put safe personnel in crucial positions such as the general prosecutor or the general controller, people that have done all what they could to accommodate the corruption and other illegalities of the regime. The April days allowed him to purge the armed forces from elements that were not reliable for the Bolivarian Revolution. The strike allowed him to fire an elitist pro globalization management at PDVSA, the state oil industry, transforming it in Chavez's own petty cash box. As a revenge measure Chavez installed a strict currency exchange control which allowed him to decide pretty much who got US dollars and who did not get them.

The only people still escaping his reach are the media, but not for lack of trying. A law to curtail the media is under fierce discussion in the National Assembly where the opposition can only do all what it can to delay its passage. Stealing (there is no other word to qualify the actions of the regulatory agency) transmission equipment from networks. Assaulting reporters. Trying to create a new TV station or newspaper, at taxpayer expense (the paper lives off paid advertisement from governmental agencies).

And yet on December 19, 3.4 million signatures were submitted to the Electoral Board to call for a recall election.

The defeat of the opposition?

The opposition started from a wrong footing against Chavez. Perhaps it thought he was a democrat and played the democratic card allowing for the new constitution. That bid did not work well. The perspective of a 6 year term with deep and damaging changes to the country made the opposition assertive when Chavez did his first missteps: a failed trade union referendum and the enabling law package that was a direct threat to private enterprise. By then it was clear that the new judicial institutions could not be counted for a fair legal appeal against laws that were violating the constitution that Chavez himself so vaunted. The result was the one day general strike of early December 2001.

The surprising success of that day encouraged the partisans of a show of force against Chavez. The next possible election was 2 an a half years away, and local elections at that. Certainly patience seemed useless. Tensions mounted fast as an unlikely union of left and right political actors grew and grew until the first attempt at sacking the PDVSA management led to April 11. That day Chavez mistakes made him resign, although he apparently never signed anything. But unfortunately Chavez's chair did not have tome to cool. Carmona and a small right wing clique that somewhat had infiltrated the popular and almost spontaneous uprising did the coup that blew away any advantage that the opposition might have gained since late 2001. To this day we do not know really what happened, as neither side is really interested in a full investigation, both sides having probably quite a few skeletons in their closets.

One thing is certain, as of April 12 (the real date of the Carmona Coup) the opposition was saddled with a coup mongering label that most of its members did not deserve.

Unfortunately this was not the end of the extremist elements within the opposition. The loss of some of the military sympathizer was a blow to that fringe but they were helped by Chavez failure to rise to the moment. This one instead or reaching some favorable deal for himself, did not waste time in plotting his revenge and the sacking of PDVSA. Soon tensions rose again. A consultative referendum was attempted and dismally neglected by authorities who even refuse to discuss its validity. A military dissidence movement appeared suddenly in October and took over Plaza Altamira. And the country walked bleary eyed into a new confrontation: the national strike of December 2002.

Again, it is not clear how we came to that situation. It seems that the pressure of the most extreme elements of the opposition managed to carry the day and get at least the strike started. Chavez saw that and very likely created enough provocations to encourage the strike to strengthen, relishing the prospect of a violent confrontation that he was in a very good position to win. The situation became so embroiled that nobody knew how to solve it. Eventually the strike petered out, but with a last bang, El Firmazo that at least showed to foreign observers that the opposition was mostly democratic although some extremist characters were trying to control it.

But the damage was done, Chavez had gained PDVSA and the currency control exchange.

The real gain of the opposition came after that new defeat. First, it had resisted the calls for violence from within its ranks and showed its democratic will with El Firmazo and two months of peaceful huge marches. Chavez marches were smaller and some of Chavez supporters were shown to be hard to control, charitably said. The huge political losses were blamed on some of the strike leaders that to this day are exiled. Indirectly this finally allowed political parties to reassert their leadership role. Extreme elements were relegated to talk shows. The OAS negotiations finally gave late May a weak accord, but an agreement nevertheless that tied down the government. Late August a resurrected, and now democratic and internationally protected opposition officially marked its return by submitting the signatures of February. Little does it matter that they were rejected, in August the opposition by accepting to play the recall election card and nothing else but that card had against all odds recovered the initiative lost since 1998.

It still took a few more months until yet a third signature gathering could be effected. But this time Chavez mistakes were duly exploited: the currency control is now blamed more for the economic recession than the general strike, a one year old excuse now!; the clumsy seizure of the networks transmission material, a case of petty revenge that did not even please his supporters who would have preferred him to close Globovision altogether.

Now the opposition is waiting for the Electoral Board ruling and it seems that there will likely be a recall election mid May at the latest. Of course, many things can happen until mid May, but right now the agenda is held by the opposition with the administration in the very uncomfortable position of reacting.

All for what?

As I think about the real suffering of the days of El Paro, of living on the edge for two months, on seeing the disastrous economical results that we have had to suffer through 2003, I am strangely satisfied. We, as a people, have lived an epic year and yet have managed not to kill each other. We have lived through the greatest crisis of our history since the Federal Wars of the mid XIX century. And we might still be able to solve our problems in a democratic way.

I think that Chavez for all his rhetoric has considerably underestimated the 40 years of "democratic" rule he so much excoriates. Our democracy is not perfect, but we care for it. If Chavez has not been able to completely impose his model it is because too many people have opposed the most questionable parts of it (while granting him all what he wanted to administer it, which he failed at). If the opposition has not been able to overthrow Chavez once and for all it is because it has resisted the siren calls from its extremes. Instead it has opted for the rule of law, even if it disagrees profoundly on the basis of some laws.

We are not in a safe harbour yet, but we have seen the flash of the lighthouse.


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